Responding to “Why Are Men and Women So Different?”

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I have, lately, been doing a series of posts on my personal blog responding to pieces on the site The Good Men Project. For various reasons, I’m doing these posts quickly – in an hour or so – which means that they aren’t as polished as some other things that I write, but I think they are still useful. For a rationale as to why I’m doing this, see the first few paragraphs of this post. Mostly, I have not shared this particular series on the Canadian Dimension blog, but this one I decided was worth publishing here, too.

The piece that I am responding to today is “Why Are Men and Women So Different?” by someone called Bill Cloke. It is an unsurprising but nonetheless very troubling and just plain inaccurate article. In addressing the general question of its title, it cites a number of different kind of specific examples – from the author’s early observations as a teacher, from his later work as a relationship counsellor, and from the media. Early on, it gives a nod to “culture, parental involvement and other factors” but then opposes that to what it then exclusively deals with, “physical and psychological differences between the boys and the girls.” Even without much further analysis, this early sentence seems sloppy in that it is hardly a radical idea in psychology that things like “parental involvement” can shape “psychological” factors, whereas this sentence implicitly poses them as different and in fact opposed. In any case, the real thrust of this sentence seems to be that social factors aren’t irrelevant, but that biological factors are what this article is going to treat as explanatory. For instance, he later explains gendered behaviours in relationship contexts through reference to differences in brain physiology, which he then links to gross generalizations in gendered approaches to dealing with tasks. The article closes by explaining that these differences do not need to be seen as a problem, and can be a source of complementarity and harmony in relationships. There is more than a whiff of heterosexism in sentences like, “Because men and women have complementary skills, the balance between the two makes for healthy and productive partnership.”

Gendered differences exist, of course. You see them in the classroom, in the school yard, in the workplace, in the family. They exist, and asking what they are and why they exist and what they mean is certainly worth doing. But as so often happens in pieces that take the line that this piece takes – and as so often happens in lots of casual conversation, in my experience – even at the level of observations of and statements about gendered difference, things are not nearly this simple. Often in conversation and writing, gendered differences are presented as much starker and more stable and more absolute than they actually are on close examination. Partly, I think, this is a product of the language that is easily accessible to talk about these things – it pushes us towards statements that are too absolute, too general, too unnuanced. But it is also a product of how we learn to observe gendered differences. I have often countered this tendency in casual conversation by citing the example of my son, L, and my nieces, E and Y, each of whom enacts an idiosyncratic mix of characteristics that are typical for their gender and those which are atypical. And they are pretty normal in that regard. Yet almost invariably this complexity is superficially acknowledged and then substantially dismissed, usually by the next sentence and certainly by the next day. And, like most people, I myself am a mix of the typical and the atypical when it comes to gender enactment.

Acknowledging this complexity is important. When you say “Boys do X” without further qualification, you are erasing the boys who do Y. You are also shaping all boys in the direction of X, and implicitly sanctioning the policing and punishment that is meted out to boys who do not do X – boys who wear pink, boys who don’t like sports, boys who like boys. And making sure that our observations of gendered differences reflect the actual variability and complexity of how they occur lets us ask better questions about where they come from. It is not a coincidence, I think, that articles which give superficial attention to the social and then default to biological determinism tend to pose the differences they claim to want to explain in simplistic ways.

In saying this, though, I’m not saying we should ignore the fact that we are physical, embodied entities, and that that matters. What I’m saying is that we need to treat claims to reduce complex human behaviours to elementary biological or biochemical observations – to reduce gender to sex, in one usage of those terms – with appropriate scientific skepticism and with critical epistemological analysis. There are resources out there (and I don’t have them at hand, and since this is a timed one-hour writing I’m not going to try to dig them up) which address that question in considerable detail. But in general it is the case, notwithstanding the fact that smart professionals like Cloke do it all the time, that you usually can’t draw a clear, causal link between a given biological readout and particular gendered differences in complex human behaviours if you are being suitably critical and rigorous. You may be able to show correlation, and you may be able to present a story that feels compelling if you don’t separate out what has actually been demonstrated from what feels plausible based on certain disciplinary assumptions and based on ideological assumptions about gender. But claims of simple cause/effect is almost always poorly produced and inaccurate knowledge. As I say, there are authors who have explored these questions in detail.

So the relationship between quantifiable biology to complex human behaviour cannot generally be drawn as a straight line. We are never just bodies. We are never outside of the social relations that produce us. Yet – in another feature common to this article, to lots of other work that takes this position, and to lots of everyday conversation – even when there is passing acknowledgement that, well, yes, of course the social is not irrelevant, there is absolutely no effort put into producing an account that integrates the biological body into the social world. And I think that’s what we need to do. Often this debate is framed as a choice between the binary opposites of “nature” and “nurture” or “biology” and “environment,” but I don’t think that is a very helpful approach. What we need to do is to come up with an account that both deals adequately with what is known about biology, physiology, biochemisty, and so on – applying the appropriate skepticism when drawing links upwards several scales to how human being behave – and that give adequate weight to the ways in which we are shaped by the social world. It is easy to come up with proof-of-principle evidence showing some role for the social production of complex human behaviour – in fact, it’s not hard to come up with pretty overwhelming evidence – so that, it seems to me, implies that even accounts that are more focused on the biological elements must thoroughly incorporate the social. They are not separable, and any account which treats them as separable will be inadequate.

An important element of that is that the causal arrows do not just point in one direction. I know some of the path breaking work was by Anne Fausto-Sterling, but I think she’s far from the only one to demonstrate this sort of thing and I’m not up on all the details. However, it has been credibly shown that social experience shapes the body in ways that are biologically and biochemically measurable. My sense is that lots more work needs to be done in this area to discover what and how in all of the myriad of specific instances, but the principle has been clearly shown. So any account of gendered differences must include the ways in which biological readouts are shaped by the ways in which different bodies have consistently different experiences related to the social organization of gender, racialization, sexuality, ability, and so on.

So, yes, gendered differences exist, and it is worth asking questions about how and why. But they are much less stark and stable than articles like this one claim. The clear causal line between biological markers and complex human behaviours does not exist in the way that this article claims, though our accounts of gendered differences can’t neglect the facts that we are physical and embodied – we have to be able to talk about biological readouts and what they mean, but we have to do so with a suitably critical epistemology. Moreover, because it is clear that the social shapes us very powerfully in gendered ways, talking about gendered differences and ignoring the social (or acknowledging it in passing and then effectively ignoring it) is just irresponsible and inaccurate.

We need better ways to talk about gender and about gendered difference, ways that transcend the nature/nurture binary, that bring in what we know about our embodied selves but that also never lose sight of the social relations that shape our experiences into privilege and oppression.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog. He has written two books as part of a larger project examining Canadian history through the stories of activists, one focused on gender and sexuality struggles and the other on resisting the state.]

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